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“Density = Dollars” and Transit Can Get You There

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Tuesday, April 24, 2012

INTRO: Michigan’s transit advocates met last week in Flint. They listened to researchers from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. who presented a document called “Missed Opportunity:  Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America.”

Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports.

The Brookings Institution studied two Michigan cities: Grand Rapids and Detroit. They determined that a person has access if a bus route is close to their home. Half of folks in metro Grand Rapids can catch a bus. Yet only 22% of Detroiters have access to DDOT or SMART. Adie Tomer wrote the study for Brookings.

“Detroit is a pretty big place but also has intense amounts of job sprawl. Out of a 100 metropolitan areas, Detroit has the 98th worst amount.”

Workers inside the city of Detroit are dependent on buses to get to jobs in the suburbs. The combination of far away spread out jobs plus poor bus service is hurting the economy.

Adie Tomer says transit can allow people to get and keep jobs and then create new ones….not just for bus drivers.

“Density equals dollars. Density can also mean convenience. So when it comes to a place like let’s say Detroit that has lost a lot of population but also has a lot of land opportunities maybe building a denser community can let transit be the facilitator of that kind of development.”

Density equals dollars, Tomer says. In other words densify or die. Historians and urban planners say Detroit has been dying since the 1950’s. So how do you reverse the trend? Do you try to fill in the empty spaces first or build a permanent transit system to connect the emptiness? I asked Adie Tomer, will mass transit in Detroit trigger a real estate boom?

“I wouldn’t stretch it that far but it can work. It’s really about how the planning works together as puzzle pieces. It could be that building transportation projects first drives certain development projects that bring more people and a denser community and that starts building on itself. For other communities they may actually need to have denser buildings and then folks are more willing to get rid of their cars or keep them parked in the garage and try taking transit maybe for the first time in their life.”

The Brookings study found that in Los Angeles, 90% of the wealthy have access to transit. Access doesn’t mean rich people are riding the bus. But they can see it in their daily lives. And they can accept tax money spent on it. In metro Detroit, only 30% of the wealthy have access to transit. Michigan transit advocates want to increase that percentage. They are targeting Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills for 3 reasons. They are the wealthiest. They speak loudly in the republican-led state and local governments. And they could save the Woodward Avenue light rail line from being a train to nowhere like the People Mover.

Brian Larkin is representing Governor Snyder’s office of Urban Initiatives. He was born and raised in Flint.

“The most important thing is constructing a transportation system that gets people to where they need to be. That was a key point in there earlier: getting individuals to jobs, destinations and points of activity.”

Detroit is the motor city and Flint is the birthplace of General Motors. But 90% of Flint’s GM jobs are gone.  Brian Larkin says the new way to invest in your community is through mass transit, not buying a new car.

“At one point everyone grew up thinking that if I buy this certain car, I know who makes it, I know where the money is going.”

“You mean the buy local movement for cars?”

“And so thinking beyond cars. Thinking beyond that as the way to drive our economy. And I think as a result of time and the current economic conditions people are coming to that conclusion on their own. They’re looking for new opportunities. They’re not looking for the next manufacturing plant. We’re looking for redefining ourselves as a city, a system and a region.”

For decades, urban planning has been done in silos. Transportation’s purpose was to move vehicles. Thousands each hour. Adie Tomer from the Brookings Institution says this should change.

“It can be desiloed and not thought of as its own entity. How can we start planning for housing, economic development centers so the multiple different silos, if you will, can kind of merge up, and really public policy can work for holistic economic development.”

This year, the three counties of the Lansing area are beginning a three year plan to integrate housing, trailways, health care, education and mass transit. They plan to tear down the silos.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation funded the Brookings Institution study and invited them to town.

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Route map from Flint Mass Transportation Authority

Route map from Flint Mass Transportation Authority

View from alley behind Saginaw St. in Flint with city's two tallest buildings in the distance. The city's downtown is densifying because of investments in real estate and the University of Michigan-Flint campus.

View from alley behind Saginaw St. in Flint with city's two tallest buildings in the distance. The city's downtown is densifying because of investments in real estate and the University of Michigan-Flint campus.

Flint native Brian Larkin is assistant director of the Flint office of the Governor's Urban Initiatives.

Flint native Brian Larkin is assistant director of the Flint office of the Governor's Urban Initiatives.

Adie Tomer works for the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He co-authored "Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America."

Adie Tomer works for the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He co-authored "Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America."

Chene Ferry Market not far from Eastern Market in Detroit. Vacant land and buildings can be a liability or an asset.

Chene Ferry Market not far from Eastern Market in Detroit. Vacant land and buildings can be a liability or an asset.

Front of Chene Ferry Market

Front of Chene Ferry Market

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